Not too long ago, the patchwork quilt of styles Australia band The Sleepy Jackson wove into its first full-length, Lovers, would probably be hailed as a response to cultural fragmentation, media overload, etc.—the usual postmodern suspects. But where Beck delivered such bricolage with a heavy dose of irony and slacker panache, band leader Luke Steel seems to be laying claim to the entire history of alternative music. What he lacks in substance, though, he makes up for in ambition, and you have to at least admire the guy’s sheer hubris. But in the end, Lovers is an album with a deep-seated insecurity. Not unlike other professional rock archivists (cf. Ryan Adams), Steel sounds like a man haunted by the ghost of his own undeniably excellent record collection, the repository of a history he wants desperately to be a part of, but has no idea why.
“Good Dancers” starts with a nod to “My Sweet Lord” and the first example of Steel’s oddly evocative lyrical sense—“Don’t always dream for what you want / But I love to watch good dancers talk.” Scooped background vocals and a lullaby of a string arrangement set up the gauzy, heavy-lidded atmosphere that permeates the album. The Velvets homage, “Vampire Racecourse,” careens and surges with a woolly-headed drone, like hearing “I’m Waiting For the Man” at max volume in the next room while dozing. The constant here is Steel’s chloroformed delivery, sounding like a man trying to engage, to feel… anything. “Rain Falls For Wind” evokes The Church on a dance kick. It’s a minor key lovers’ lament that features more of Steel’s trance-inducing non sequiturs—“I’ve been drinkin and I been thinking of you / Now I know … the snow will let me know.”
“This Day” drifts in and out of another George Harrison-inspired fit of melancholy, underscoring Steel’s inability to locate whatever it is that gnaws at his soul. The lyrics make gestures at some nebulous, unnamed sadness fleeting from one corner of his mind to another: “When you know I’m down / And I’m in your town / You stay at home you stay alone / I said I don’t know how to live my life/ The sun comes in the morning and it waits at night / And I’ve got the one the only one I know.”
The spoken-word “Fill Me With Apples” splits the difference between Tom Waits’ avant-cabaret and the tortured-soul poetic earnestness of Nick Cave, without the lyrical wit of the former or the gothic authority of the latter. It’s a track so weighed down by pointless artiness that the rest of the album bends toward its pretentious gravity.
The genre-hopping continues, with the electronica of “Tell the Girls I’m Not Hangin Out,” the Petty-esque jangle of “Come to This,” the Gram Parsons-like “Miniskirt,” and “Old Dirt Farmer,” which sounds like a dustbowl ballad written from the back porch of an Oklahoma insane asylum.
Steel’s critically impeccable quoting will draw criticism from some quarters, hosannas from others, and he probably deserves a little of both. There’s talent underneath the name-dropping, but for the most part his reach exceeds his grasp. None of the songs on Lovers are strong enough to endure with the artists they pay tribute to, but you get the feeling Steel would have a shot at living up to that legacy if he ever stopped trying so hard to show how well he knows it.